DREAM Act to change future of undocumented students if passed by Congress
Carla Zapata has her hands full.
Zapata balances a full-time job, while double majoring in Central American studies and history. The 24-year-old is also an active member in several clubs and organizations on campus.
Zapata said she has struggled to pay tuition because she does not qualify for financial aid.
“When I started college, I worked two jobs while being a full-time student,” she said. “It’s incredibly draining. Your work begins to affect your academics.”
She is an undocumented student and does not qualify for financial aid. Zapata is not alone.
Just recently, the student body president from CSU Fresno, Pedro Ramirez, revealed he was an undocumented student. Days later, Jose Salcedo, the student government association president from Miami Dade College also revealed that he too was undocumented.
Zapata said she pays in-state tuition because she qualified for the AB 540 program.
The California AB 540 law states that if a student attended a high school in California for three years and graduated, they are seen as a resident when it comes to in-state tuition status for college, said Jorge Garcia, CSUN Chicano studies professor.
AB 540 is not unique to California. There are other states including Illinois, New Mexico, New York and Texas that have similar policies.
For students like Zapata, the program helps but in no way relieves the struggle to achieve a college education, she said.
Because of their status, students like Zapata are unable to apply for public scholarships or obtain federal student loans.
William Perez, professor at Claremont Graduate University and author of “We ARE Americans: Undocumented Students Pursuing The American Dream, “said undocumented students have very few options in terms of financial assistance.
“Undocumented students are not eligible for public funds like Stafford or Perkins loans, and Cal Grants,” Perez said. “It’s definitely an area of frustration for them.”
Zapata said it is hard for her to apply for private scholarships.
“Being a full-time worker and a full-time student leaves me no time to sit down and apply for the scholarships and loans that I can apply for,” she said.
In addition to her struggle to pay for her education, Zapata faces other obstacles, including lack of personal transportation. With her home base in Hollywood, Zapata said it takes her two hours to get to CSUN using public transportation.
On top of their daily balancing act of school, work, and extracurricular activities, Perez said undocumented students have the looming fear of being deported and having to start over in another country.
“This (deportation) is an ongoing concern,” Perez said. “But I think most undocumented students have learned to manage that anxiety.”
Despite the roadblocks, Zapata said she tries not to dwell on negative or discouraging thoughts. She said she is making the most of her college career and is involved in bringing awareness and educating others about the AB 540 program.
Like Zapata, Pedro Trujillo’s college career has been a stressful one. The Chicano studies major said he was not encouraged to attend college while in high school.
“They told me I couldn’t go to college,” he said. “There are over 2 million undocumented youth in the United States and about eight or nine percent go to college.”
He said if it had not been for a private scholarship he received towards his first semester of college, enrollment would not have even been a possibility.
“Every month I’m barely getting by,” Trujillo said. “I have to focus on my needs and not wants.”
Trujillo said he fears the uncertainty of life after graduation because he may find himself unable to jumpstart his career like other undocumented students have once they graduate from college.
“Getting a degree is supposed to mean something,” Trujillo said. “I know people who have graduated and are still working minimum wage jobs because they are undocumented.”
Garcia said the DREAM Act, which is awaiting action in the final days of the current Congress, could create a path to citizenship for students like Zapata and Trujillo.
“It opens pathways but does not guarantee,” Garcia said.
Students would only qualify for the DREAM Act if they meet all requirements.
CSUN’s Dreams to be Heard, which Zapata and Trujillo are involved in, provides support to AB 540 students and also strives to educate the campus community about the legislation.
CSUN’s Associated Students supports the DREAM Act and have been active in getting the legislation passed by writing letters of support, said A.S. President Conor Lansdale.
“In my opinion, they are an important group of people,” Lansdale said. “Education is a way to get people out of poverty and spread democracy. I would never say no to someone getting an education.”